‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.
This difficult poem describes a dream encounter between the living and those killed in the First World War, attempting to instruct the reader that they should avoid pity or praise when speaking to the dead: they have been transformed by death into ghosts of the people they once were, and there can be no meaningful conversation between the two.
When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead: Again, this title has been applied after the fact. This has become a famous poetic image and quotation related to the First World War: it encompasses the scale of human loss in a nightmare vision of powerlessless (‘mouthless’, of course, suggests their inability to speak— or have their voices heard by others).
STRUCTURE: This is a sonnet. To see previous notes which describe the sonnet’s traditional structure, see Rupert Brooke’s ‘Peace’, ‘The Dead’ and ‘The Soldier’. Sorley’s sonnet has an unusual structure: ABABBABA CDCDCD. It retains a distinct octet and sextet, but as a sonnet it is nonetheless unconventional, not least in its uncompromising subject matter.
“When you see millions of the mouthless dead… pale battalions go”: The opening lines are immediately both shocking and haunting. The second person address (the use of ‘you’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘I’) immediately personalizes the nightmare vision of the millions dead. It is an interesting question as to whom the implied reader is in this poem: is it those at home who have not witnessed the horrors of the war? Or is the march of the dead soldiers across the dreamworld of the living a universal experience, something unavoidable? Greek myth, which Sorley knew well, sometimes made the gods of sleep (Hypnos), death (Thanatos) and dreams (Morpheus) brothers; in this sense, encountering those who have died in battle in dreams is not necessarily an unexpected meeting.
“Say not soft things as other men have said, / That you’ll remember.”: the speaker warns against polite consoling or pitying words to the dead. The warning seems to address feelings of shame or embarrassment that the implied reader might feel: introducing the submerged question of guilt about the deaths of the men.
“For you need not so. / Give them not praise.”: these short sentences of instruction are written in a peculiarly disjointed way. The souls of soldiers might be expected to draw from the living kind words or praise. Yet the words ‘not’ (and later ‘nor’) interrupt and negate such responses: they’re simply not an option. This sense of interruption of expectations and meaning within the style of writing is known as anastrophe– where the grammar of a sentence seems deliberately disjointed or strangely ordered for effect. Compare the greeting to the dead in Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’— where the speaker begins, “Strange friend” (p.194).
“For, deaf, how should they know it is not curses… gashed head?”: The horrific insensibility of the dead is compounded with the observation that they cannot hear what you have to say to them. The reference to ‘gashed heads’ here is deliberately disturbing: the soldier’s wounds persist after death.
“Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.”: with each line the insensibility of the dead to the living increases. “Tears”— pity— have no use here.
“Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.”: the repeated rejection of what might be thought as humane or proper responses to the dead soldiers in each instruction emphasises the distance and difference between the dead and the living. The idea that it is ‘easy to be dead’ is shocking, even if it does appeal to intuition (that it is harder to stay alive than stay dead).
“…‘They are dead’. Then add thereto. ‘Yet many a better one has died before.”: there is, again, something shocking about the matter-of-factness of these instructions. The instruction to add that better people have died than the dead in war is so unsentimental as to seem chilling. It is interesting to speculate why Sorley uses this objective tone when writing about this encounter with the dead. Why is he alienated by the solecisms (kind words and acts) of the living? Is it because they are useless once a man is dead? Does Sorley blame the naively sentimental, the kind and the patriotic for the war?
“scanning all the o’ercrowded mass,”: “scanning” means looking; “o’ercrowded” means overcrowded. There are, remember, millions of dead soldiers crowding this dream space. “Mass” suggests they have lost individuality: it is an interesting word in early twentieth century discourse. ‘The masses’ were people perceived as a scary and undifferentiated entity, rather than as a large group made up of individuals. It may have a sinister suggestion here.
“…should you / Perceive one face that you loved heretofore, / It is a spook.”: the lines mean ‘if you see someone you loved before, it is a ghost’. The contrast between the hopeful expectation of the bereaved viewer and the unsentimental speaker is again contrasted. The choice of the word ‘spook’ is interesting: it is careless, flippant, almost dismissive, having few of the high-flown religious connotations we might expect when talking about such a moment.
“None wears the face that you knew. Great death has made all his for evermore.”: a chilling tone continues to the end. The common personification of Death, as a ruler or king over all, that we have already found in Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’ (p.164) makes a reappearance here. Note that, like Grenfell’s poem and the previous by Sorley, this is an unchristian poem. There is no consolation of heaven for the righteous dead, similarly no promise of hell; kind or thoughtful acts affect nothing, and are quite useless— they seem almost to be vanities; while the ‘mass’ of dead are regarded objectively, almost without discrimination. The inspiration for this vision is, similar to Grenfell, the classical idea of death and afterlife found in Greek myth. Hades ruled over the Greek underworld or afterlife; those who led unremarkable lives would wander the fields of Asphodel in Hades, having forgotten their previous identities, leading neutral, ghostly lives. Heroes of battle would live in the Elysian fields; but the afterlife of the ‘mass’ of dead that Sorley describes here fits far closer the fields of Asphodel. The lack of a sense of pity or consolation in the poem marries up with this bleak world of identity lost and disconnection from the world of the living.
[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is part of a long tradition of poems that describe the encounter between the living and the ghosts of the dead who have been killed in battle. It can usefully be compared within the anthology to Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ (p.194) and, outside the anthology, with Hardy’s ‘The Man He Killed’.]